Beginner's Guide to the 200th Canstatter Volksfest!

Fest season is upon us and it's bigger and better than ever! This blog post will be longer than usual but I want to provide a definitive, comprehensive guide to Stuttgart's 200th annual Volksfest with tips and tricks to make sure you have the best experience ever!

What is Volksfest?

The “fruit column” attests to the agricultural origins of the fest.

The “fruit column” attests to the agricultural origins of the fest.

Technically, it's a German beer fest. Beer nerds shouldn't get too excited, because the focus is more on quantity than quality. This isn't an event where people take small sips of craft beers while brewers explain their process. Instead, you drink beer in liter mugs, standing on benches while a mixture of Top 40 hits and traditional "schlager" music is played. This takes place in 7 beer tents. But there's also a huge area that looks more like a state fair, with carnival games, food and drink stands, and rides.

How did Volksfest start?

Long story short, there were two years of bad harvest in 1817 and 1818 due to a volcanic eruption in the south Pacific. The ash cloud created colder than normal temperatures all over Europe, which resulted in "The year without a summer." The resulting famine was devastating to many communities.

We party thanks to these two!  (You can visit this site on my Vineyard Wine Walk!)

We party thanks to these two! (You can visit this site on my Vineyard Wine Walk!)

Luckily, King Wilhelm of Wurttemberg was married to Queen Katherina, the sister of the Tsar of Russia. This familial relationship resulted in Wurttemberg getting low-priced shipments of Russian grain to the area, which helped stave off the famine. But Wilhelm, a relatively progressive monarch in his early years, wanted a long-term solution to help his subjects in his realm, the breadbasket of Germany. So he decided to have a festival the day after his birthday in 1816 in which he'd introduce Wurttemberg's peasant farmers to modern agricultural methods. But because it was Germany, there was also beer, and a fest was born.

Is Volksfest like Oktoberfest?

Yes and no. In many ways they are similar. Both have a state-fair atmosphere, both have beer tents, and Volksfest is the second largest beer festival in the world, with 4 million visitors annually, after Oktoberfest's 6 million. But they have unique histories (Oktoberfest was started around a horse race to celebrate a royal wedding, 8 years prior to Volksfest) and Oktoberfest was traditionally more Bavarian in style, although in recent years the trend at Volksfest has been to ape this. Generally, Volksfest is far less touristy than Oktoberfest. Many travel to attend, but they're more likely to be from neighboring countries than Australia or Japan.

How do I attend?

Quite easily, you take the U-bahn to Mercedesstrasse or the S-Bahn or U-bahn to Bad Canstatt (Wilhelmsplatz) and follow the dirndl-wearing crowd, and just walk in. Security guards will want to check your bags before you enter and outside beverages are not allowed, but that’s it - and there’s no cost to enter.

RIdes and games are paid on an individual basis. There are many beer stands outside so it's easy to enjoy a wurst and beer without even dealing with the tents.

Best yet is the "Almhuttendorf", or "Alpine Hut Village". This area recreates the charm of a Bavarian alpine village with some of the best food stands in the fest, an outdoor stage with a band that plays evenings and weekends, and yes, a rotating bar. It's very easy to have a great time at fest without ever entering a beer tent just by hanging out at the Almhuttendorf.

But I want to go into a tent!

Wasen.jpg

Ok, this is where things get a bit trickier, but it's doable. The 7 beer tents at Volksfest are run by local breweries or families and they each are similar but have their own character. For example, Sonja Merz tent is classy and clean, but a little more sedate. Zum Wasenwirt attracts a youngish party crowd. Glockelsmaier is somewhere inbetween. Day and time factor in a big way. Without reservations, it will be difficult to get into a tent on weekends, especially in the evening. Also take a look at a German calendar: the night before a German bank holiday is like a Friday night - getting in without a reservation will be difficult.

Reservation? What are you talking about?

So all the tents take reservations. Generally they're for a whole table, which seats 10 (squished a bit). Yes, it costs money, but it’s not a “cover charge” - you pay for tokens for beer and a meal. On weekends, reservations usually include 3 liters of beer and a half chicken (or another dish at the same price, around 10 euros) - times 10. So every person at the table has paid roughly 40 euros for their 3 liters of beer and dinner. Not too bad! Some tents will let you use any beer or food tokens any time during the fest, so you don’t have to drink all 3. Check your tokens to find out.

Some tents now will do half-table reservations for 4-6 as well, but that will mean you're sharing your table with strangers. Generally tents have two seatings per day, a lunch seating around 11:30 and a dinner seating around 17:30. That one goes until the tent closes between 23:00-00:00. That's the party time where things get a bit nuts.

Can I get a reservation now?

Fest started last Thursday, so probably not. For weekend seats you need to reserve months in advance. You might want to check for weekday slots, though. All the different tents have websites with online reservation forms.

Wait, so can I go into a tent without a reservation?

Totally! On a weekday. Or maybe on a weekend at midday. It depends. On the weekends and weekdays in good weather there will be a line but you may be able to get in. Finding a seat once you're in may be difficult during busy times, but even in the evening Monday-Wednesday it's easy to go into a tent.

Wait, why do I want to go into a tent, anyway?

A beer tent, especially on a weekend night is a unique and transformative experience. It will be hot (no matter how cold it is outside). Everyone around you will be drunk. It will be sticky, loud, infuriating, until you finish your first liter of beer, when suddenly the music hits you and you've never had so much fun in your life with your 9 new best friends.

This...doesn't sound so great for me (or my children).

Nah, fest is great. But if the drunken insanity of a beer tent isn't for you, it's easy to go on a week night, pop your head in, get a quick drink from one of the bars inside the tent )they always seem to have room) and say you did it. Then you can spend the rest of the time exploring the rest of the fairgrounds (called "Wasen", Swabian for "meadow" although it's just a big patch of asphalt along the Neckar river). The nice thing about Volksfest is the majority of the drunken behavior is reserved for the tents, unlike some other fests (like Oktoberfest).

So...can I bring my kids to this thing?

Absolutely! There's usually one or two "family days" where rides are discounted, early in the week. Half the fest is children's rides and games and candy booths. It's absolutely a family-friendly event. Again, the beer tents are where the party is but it's fine to bring the kids in to the tents at lunchtime during the week as well.

Should I drive to Volksfest?

No. Parking is a pain, you'll still be walking a lot to and within the Wasen. It's much better to just get on public transit. If you live out far in the 'burbs, consider using one of Stuttgart's many park and ride lots (only if you have a designated driver). Honestly, public transit is so good here you have no excuse for not using it. Don't forget about the amazing value of the "gruppentageskarte" or "group day ticket" which is good for up to 5 adults, all day, on any form of transit for around $13. It's a steal.

Want more information? Attend one of my public Stuttgart tours during the remainder of fest season, and for no extra charge I will be happy to take you to fest free of charge and spend 30 minutes or so showing you around (including where to get the absolute best fest food!)

Tours are at 11:00 on Tuesdays, 13:00 on Thursdays and Sundays. Reservations are needed, via email.

Prost!

prost.jpg

Hidden Hotels and History Right Beneath Your Feet...

The Marktplatz as it appears today.

The Marktplatz as it appears today.

If you're living near or visiting Stuttgart, chances are you've visited the Marktplatz.  The historic Marketplace has been a scene of trade since earlier than 1283, when the then small city of Stuttgart was granted the right to hold a market by the Holy Roman Emperor.  Continuing in that tradition, the Marktplatz is both the scene for 3 weekly farmers markets (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 9:00 -13:00) and a host of seasonal festivals like the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).  


But hidden history lurks beneath.  Bunkers to protect Stuttgart's citizens from Allied air raids during World War II were constructed all over Stuttgart, including right under the Marktplatz.  The Bunker im Marktplatz was completed in June 1941 and could house 1,010 people long term, or 3,000 people in the event of an emergency air raid.

The Marktplatz after the war, with the ruins of the "Neues Rathaus".

The Marktplatz after the war, with the ruins of the "Neues Rathaus".


Because of the immense destruction to the center of Stuttgart by the end of the war, there was a housing shortage, let alone enough space to provide shelter for visitors.  Out of 30 large hotels, only 3 survived the war, making the space available from 3,600 rooms pre-war to less than 300 by 1945.  So the highly practical Swabians devised to turn their air shelter bunkers into hotels.  Thus the "Bunker hotel" was born.


There were actually 6 bunker hotels operating in Stuttgart after the war - in addition to the largest at the Marktplatz, there were hotels at Marienplatz, Wilhelmsplatz, Leonardsplatz, and near the Rosensteinbruke.  They gradually fell out of favor as the city rebuilt into the modern form known today, but the "Hotel am Marktplatz" survived all the way until 1985, when it was closed for health and safety reasons.

The Bunker Hotel is only open to the public one night out of the whole year!

The Bunker Hotel is only open to the public one night out of the whole year!


Today, this unique artifact of the war and Swabian resourcefulness can only be visited by the public one day out of the year - the famous "Lange Nacht der Museen" or "Long Museum Night".  On this night, dozens of museums across Stuttgart open their doors after 19:00 for special events, tours, music, drinks, and dancing.  But because of it's mystery, the line for the Bunker Hotel at the Marktplatz is always the longest.


The "Lange Nacht" provides special shuttle service in between the far-flung venues including the Mercedes Museum, the Neckar River port, wineries in Unterturkheim, and much, much more - over 80 exhibitions and special events ake place all over Stuttgart for this very special annual event.  You can find out about more with the English FAQ on the


Want to make a day of it?  To kick off the Spring tour season, I'll be providing a Stuttgart City Tour at 16:00 this Saturday, March 17th ending with enough time to grab dinner before the event starts.  I'll point out some of my favorite exhibits of the Lange Nacht in between deep diving into Stuttgart's hidden history.

Unlike most tours, you do NOT have to reserve in advance, (although you're welcome to if you wish!)  so if you're feeling spontaneous, it's no issue to roll up to the meeting spot.  Just be aware that tours do depart promptly.  Hope to see you there!

A room in the Bunker Hotel in the late 1940s

A room in the Bunker Hotel in the late 1940s

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I'll be honest with you: when I left the United States, I dreaded Christmas.  That's not exactly a unique feeling for a lot of people these days, I realize, but I really dreaded it.  It was an excessively stressful time of year.  And my complaints are just as unimaginative: the excessive commercialization, the obnoxious constant stream of carols, the traffic, the inevitable lack of funds...Christmas had lost a lot of its magic for me as an adult.  

But my first Christmas in Germany changed that, because in Germany - and indeed, much of Europe, the dreary weather, constant lack of sunshine, all of that vanishes thanks to the Christmas Markets, or Weinachtsmarkten.  And why not?  For a month in the bigger cities, and at least for a couple days in even the smallest villages, everything is transformed.  Adorable huts selling ornaments, candles, and crafts spring up.  The smells of sizzling wurst, roast chestnuts, and spiced almonds fill the air.  Oh, and did I forget to mention Glühwein?

Stuttgart's Alte Schloss at Christmas

It seems silly to complain about commercialization while celebrating what is a market, where one goes to spend money, but there's something different about the European Christmas feeling.  It's not that you don't hear carols on the radio, or have sales in the malls, because that's inescapable, but the cozy feeling you get admiring the booth decorations while warming up with a beautifully decorated mug of glühwein or cider, chatting with friends and family in the cold but bustling night is something really special.

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Stuttgart's Christmas market starts on November 27th, and runs every day until December 23rd.  Sadly, I'll have to suspend my regular tours of Stuttgart during this time, as the market takes up most of the route of my tour through the Mitte, and it's just crowded and narrow to navigate a group through.  I'll still be available for tours during weekday mornings, however, when crowds are more manageable.  It's a great idea for an activity if friends and family are visiting this holiday season, and I'm available on both the 24th and 25th (when most everything else will be shut down).

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

The exciting news is that I am starting my new tour of Esslingen, but only as a private tour reserved in advance.  Regularly scheduled public tours will begin right after Christmas.  You can reserve by contacting me or by sending me a message on Facebook!

In the meantime, you can keep up with my own travels through the regional Christmas Markets by watching this blog, or following me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter!  Have a great holiday season!  

 

Jewish Life - and Loss - in Stuttgart

Tomorrow, November 9th, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of terror and destruction that is commonly regarded as the beginning of the end for Germany's Jews.   Being an American with an interest in Jewish history living in Germany can be very upsetting sometimes, but it's important to commemorate the full spectrum of that experience over the centuries - the good and the horrific.

Jewish residence in Stuttgart dates back at least to the 1300's, possibly earlier.  For most of the medieval era, Jews were not allowed to settle within the city walls, and were instead crowded into a ghetto on what is today Brennerstrasse in the Bohnenviertel, or Bean Quarter.  Early Counts of Wurttemberg were relatively tolerant of their presence, but the populace often wasn't, with numerous pogroms and expulsions taking place for the next two centuries.  Things got worse for the region's Jewish population in 1492, when Count Eberhard the Bearded of Wurttemberg issued an order expelling all Jews from the County.  This in spite of renowned Stuttgart priest Johannes Reuchlin, who was affilated with the St. Leonard's Church in the Bohnenviertel.  He was the first non-Jewish German to learn Hebrew and a great humanist, but even his influence could not save the Jewish communities of Wurttemberg from exile.  

 The exceptions were in Free Imperial Cities like Esslingen - cities controlled not by the local counts and dukes, but directly by the Holy Roman Emperor.  As a result, Imperial Cities almost always had larger Jewish populations than other capitals, and Esslingen was no exception.  There are far more traces remaining today in Esslingen of medieval Jewish life than there are in Stuttgart. 

Fortunes changed for the better in the the late 1600's, when small numbers affluent Jews were permitted to settle in Stuttgart, and throughout the 1700's several Jewish men and one woman served as economic advisers to the Dukes of Wurttemberg.  This period of relative harmony ended tragically in the case of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, a trusted advisor to Duke Karl Alexander.  Oppenheimer was unpopular with the court of Wurttemberg, and when Duke Karl died, a mob arrested him and had him hung for treason.  Once again, the Jewish families of Stuttgart were exiled in 1737.  This story was the subject of a Nazi-produced antisemitic propaganda film Jud Suss in 1940.

Duke Karl Eugen Ludwig, founder of Ludwigsburg and otherwise known as the guy who built all the fancy palaces in the area (Neuesschloss, Ludwigsburgschloss, Schloss Solitude, and others) permitted again Jewish merchants to settle in Stuttgart, and after Wurttemberg was elevated to a Kingdom by Napoleon in 1806, conditions continued to improve.  This began the closest thing to a "golden age" the Jewish community of Stuttgart ever experienced, although it was not without widespread antisemitism from the public and setbacks.  Nonetheless, this period marked the beginning of integration into public life for Stuttgart's Jews, with an official city rabbi, a synagogue, ritual baths, and other elements of Jewish religious life appearing.  Bad Canstatt, now part of Stuttgart but then a separate village, also had an increasingly populous and influential Jewish community during the mid-to-late-1800s, and it was during this time that Albert Einstein's parents met in Canstatt and were married at the synagogue there.  Meanwhile, in Stuttgart, city Rabbi Josef Mayer was elevated to the rank of nobility by the King, in recognition for his contributions to literature, poetry, and religious texts as he was an important figure in codifying religiously liberal Reform Judaism.

Transient

Within 100 years, the population of Stuttgart's Jews went from 124 in 1825 to 4,548 in 1925, and they had fully equal legal rights under the law.  Jewish people in Stuttgart were teachers, professors, industrialists, judges, soldiers, and politicians.  It's hard to imagine all that progress could be stripped away less than 10 years later, with the rise of the National Socialists and the passage of the Nuremberg laws, which again codified legal discrimination against Jews into German law.

By 1939, the year after Kristallnacht, the Jewish population had been reduced to 2,413 as defined by the Nazi racial laws - which actually counted more people as Jews than previous censuses, as anyone with a Jewish grandparents was considered Jewish, regardless of conversion to Christianity or intermarriage, both of which were common in Stuttgart in the 20s and 30s as Jews continued to assimilate.  This number does not reflect well that as much as 60% of Stuttgart's German Jews, who were mostly middle class, had immigrated, mostly to the U.S.A or what is now Israel by 1939, many of them notable scholars, artists, musicians, scientists, and politicians.  Meanwhile, from the 1910s onward, poorer Jews from Eastern Europe, fleeing antisemitic pogroms, had settled in the area in those decades and lacked the funds to immigrate overseas to escape Nazi persecution.

 

The synagogue in Ludwigsburg burns on Kirstallnacht

The synagogue in Ludwigsburg burns on Kirstallnacht

Kristallnacht was a Nazi-organized, nationwide pogrom against synagogues, Jewish-owned business, and Jewish homes.  As with nearly every city, Stuttgart's synagogue and most of its holy objects were destroyed.   91 Jewish people died during the attacks, and many were rounded up and jailed under false pretenses.  The "night of broken glass" shattered any remaining illusions that German Jews may have held about attempting to wait out the Nazi regieme as they'd survived so many bouts of antisemitism throughout the centuries.  Those with the ability to immigrate did, but securing visas was difficult and even "friendly" countries like the United States and England severely restricted the number of refugees they would accept.  Nazi laws had made Jews stateless persons, with no legal rights.  For nearly all of Stuttgart's remaining 2,400 Jews, there was simply no way out.

It was under this situation that the first mass deportation of Stuttgart's Jews began on October 24, 1941, from the now-destroyed trade center at Killesberg.  Most Jews deported from Stuttgart went to the Theriesenstadt camp, or to Auschwitz.  Less than 10% of deported Jews from Stuttgart survived the camps.

Memorial to the deportation of Stuttgart's Jews

Memorial to the deportation of Stuttgart's Jews

Some of Stuttgart's Jewish population did manage avoid deportation, through hiding, often assisted by "righteous gentiles" who opposed the Nazi regime.   The vast majority of those who survived the war left Germany in the years immediately after the war.  

Stuttgart's Jewish community has never come close to fully recovering, although it is estimated that the population today is around 500 people.  A new synagogue was built on the site of the old one in the 1950s.  Many of Stuttgart's Jewish population today hails from the former Soviet Union, seeking refuge here to avoid persecution. 

Evidence of the slowly reemerging Jewish community is evident in the Jewish Culture Week, which takes place this year from November 4th through the 17th.  The program includes lectures, klezmer concerts, cooking classes, and tours of the city and synagogue.  A schedule (in German) can be found here.  

This is by no means anything other than an introduction to the topic of the Jewish history Stuttgart.  A trove of more detailed information exists online, and I highly recommend reading this history of Jewish life in Stuttgart as well as this harrowing description of Kristallnacht and the repressive laws that followed.

I also highly recommend watching this 30 minute documentary, in English, about the last two Holocaust survivors from Stuttgart.  It is incredibly moving and informative, and stresses how important it is that this history is never forgotten even when the eyewitnesses have ceased to exist

 

 

Two Holocaust survivors on the train from Stuttgart to Theresienstadt. Sharing memories of the deportation of the German Jews with a group of young people and artists from their former home town. www.swr.de

Stuttgart's Markthalle

 

When I found out I would be moving to Germany, the first thing I panicked about was food.  Or specifically, ingredients.  Germany’s food scene is not famous for being anything, but, well, German.  I had terrifying images of being able to buy only German ingredients to make dishes like Rostbratwurst and Kasespaetzle.  It was horrifying.

You see, I love to cook.  Mostly because I love food.  I’m self-taught, which was born out of necessity when I was a poor student. I couldn't afford to eat out at the delicious restaurants the Bay Area had to offer.  So I learned to replicate the dishes I loved at home.  As a result, I mostly cook Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, and Chinese dishes, with a bit of “new American” thrown in.  These are the cuisines I love the most.  And I was really afraid I wouldn't be able to source the authentic ingredients I needed to make these dishes taste right in Southwestern Germany, which doesn't host large populations of immigrants from those regions compared to the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

I shouldn't have worried.  Stuttgart has a haven for international foodies, and it’s called the Markthalle. Luckily for us, it’s just an amazing place to shop.

Markthalle exterior

The first time I entered the historic, art-deco building, with it’s innovative curved glass roof and dozens of gourmet food stalls, I likened it to San Francisco’s famous Ferry Building marketplace.  My husband rightfully pointed out that the Ferry Building was more likely modeled on traditional indoor European marketplaces than the other way around.  Point taken.  That said, the atmosphere and offerings are anything but staid traditional German food.  The variety and quality of products are more in line with markets in world-class, international, modern cities.

Glorious, expensive produce.

Need some fancy French or Italian cheese?  Four different stalls have you covered, at prices that are quite reasonable compared to the U.S. The produce selection is both beautiful and amazing, but since many of the exotic fruits are imported (Germany has no warm-weather growing regions like California or Florida) the American shopper might experience a bit of sticker shock.

For the conscious omnivore, there’s organic and free-range butcheries, and a large selection of cured meats and yes, wurst to choose from.  Fresh French and Germany-style breads are also on offer, as a truly mouthwatering selection of truffles,stuffed dates, cakes, and pastries.

For those with international taste buds, there are stalls that focus on Spanish, Greek, Turkish, and Eastern European delicacies - many of which will be unfamiliar to even the most well-traveled American.  Happily for me, the Spanish booth also sells a good range of authentic Mexican products including dried chilies, black beans, and the best handmade tortilla chips I've had in Germany.  There’s also a spice booth that sells a large supply of key Asian ingredients from all over the continent.  Rounding out the supply are upscale wine stores, “made in Stuttgart” products, and a fishmonger.  

Being exposed to all this amazing-looking food can work up an appetite, so luckily there area several restaurants the occupy the periphery of the Markthalle as well.  When you visit, don’t forget to check out the exterior of the building, which is covered with colorful murals and fanciful sculptures of chameleons.

The Markthalle - inside, and out - is a regular part of the Stuttgart Steps tour.  If you’re visiting on your own, it’s most convenient to the Charlottenplatz and Rathaus U-bahn stops.